I met Rachel some years ago now. We both have daughters in the same year at school and they are friends. For some time, my friendship with Rachel was based on being the “mother of” rather than knowing each other as people in our own right.
All that changed last December with a chance conversation at a Christmas gathering. Well it was more of a monologue really. I had taken a bottle of bubbly with me. And my soap box. My soap box is an almost constant companion, so this was nothing new.
Another mum (well a human in her own right, actually) was talking about the impact on her family of her father’s struggle with Parkinson’s. I mentioned that I was reading a lot about the gut microbiome and its possible connection to Parkinson’s; that in addition to Parkinson’s, the state of our gut microbiome is being linked to a growing list of non-communicable illnesses. I know it was a Christmas party and we were eating, but I think I talked about fecal microbial transplants. I did. I admit it.
And Rachel, well Rachel was listening. She talked a little about her experiences as a new mother and I droned on about my favourite topic – the gut microbiome. About its crucial importance to our health. We ate, drank and talked about gut health, bacteria and poo.
About 3 months later, out of the blue, Rachel asked if I wanted to meet for coffee. To my surprise, she passed across the table a suspicious looking (and smelling) tupperware containing milk kefir grains. I was bamboozled (surely, I was supposed to be supplying her?!). It was only then that I realised something I had said back in December had set light to her touch paper.
Rachel, can you tell The Colonic what you told me back in December about the birth of your eldest daughter and the impact that had on your own health?
The birth of my first daughter, Hannah, was long and traumatic. I laboured with just gas and air for a long time but I finally reached a point when I was desperate for an epidural. A very busy anaesthetist meant that by the time they finally got to me, it was too late for an epidural. They nevertheless tried to carry out the procedure but they couldn’t get the needle in the right place. I did not receive the epidural. What I did get though, (although this was not diagnosed immediately) was a punctured spinal membrane. This caused the most horrific headache as, unbeknownst to me, my cerebro-spinal fluid had begun to leak out of the puncture wound.
After a difficult labour and with my new baby to care for, I could not lift my head off the pillow without feeling that my skull was being crushed. I had this headache for five days in hospital. Despite my symptoms, no one realised that I had an epidural headache because I hadn’t actually had an epidural. Eventually, a senior consultant anaesthetist (about the ninth doctor I had seen) diagnosed it. She treated me within the hour and the headache went.
The trauma of the birth and then being so ill after it really took its toll and I became depressed. I was also very anxious and had several panic attacks when we got home with Hannah. A severe case of post-natal depression (PND) set in and when my daughter was about six months old, I started on anti-depressants. They did help and after a year I felt much better.
Looking back, it is not a surprise I developed PND. I had felt quite depressed on and off in my late teens and early twenties although no diagnosis was ever made. Back then, there seemed no option but to just soldier on when I felt very low – I hunkered down and waited for things to get better, which they usually did.
I had gut issues when I was younger too. I was diagnosed with IBS in my late teens. I often suffered with “nervous tummy” too and indigestion. All of this was attributed to stress – due to exams and later, due to a stressful job. I think differently about these two issues now – gut health and emotional health and their relationship to one another.
And then your second daughter came along?
Well Rosie’s birth was completely different – she shot out!! But she had a little lump in her armpit and when she was about a week old, the doctor gave her a course of antibiotics. I remember thinking vaguely, “should we give antibiotics to a baby this tiny?” but we didn’t know any better, so we gave them to her. The lump disappeared and we didn’t think any more of it. Obviously, we will never now know whether the cyst would have disappeared by itself anyway.
What do you feel were the longer-term health consequences for Rosie of that initial medical intervention?
At the same time Rosie had the antibiotics, I was really struggling with breastfeeding, so we swapped to formula. Rosie had fed well until this point but then she started crying a lot at feed time and having to be coaxed to feed. She also started vomiting profusely. So much so, that we had to get the carpets cleaned regularly. The situation deteriorated and by the time she was about three months old, we could not get her to feed at all – she would just scream. Finally, we got a diagnosis. Rosie apparently had gastric reflux (she did not) and she was failing to thrive. She was put on three kinds of medication, none of which really helped. (Colonic: we are learning that medication for reflux can affect our stomach acid, which can have a detrimental effect on our gut microbiome. The change in acidity in the stomach can allow more pathogenic bacteria to make it through the stomach acid and into the large intestine, where they affect our gut microbial balance).
On top of the feeding issues, by the time she was one, Rosie was also covered in eczema, had an inhaler for asthma and was suffering repeatedly from ear and chest infections. I started to wonder if all of this was due to an allergy, despite the fact that none of the rest of us suffer from allergies. We even re-homed our cat in case Rosie was allergic to him. She wasn’t – sorry Alfie!
I became more and more convinced that she was allergic to something. The doctors were very sceptical because, in their view, she had never had a “severe” reaction to anything (which felt pretty ironic to me given the state of her health) but they were thinking in terms of anaphylaxis. When she was three years old, having seen no improvement in her health at all and having had many courses of antibiotics to no avail, I did a home blood test for milk allergy and I was not at all surprised when the result was positive. Apparently, the symptoms of milk allergy and gastric reflux are very similar. And with the eczema and asthma too – there it was – mystery finally solved! We took her off dairy immediately and slowly, things began to improve.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I think it is no coincidence that her feeding problems started at about the time that she had the antibiotics. It is no coincidence that she had a milk allergy, eczema, asthma and repeated chest and ear infections – all connected to immune response when we know that our gut microbiome is of key importance to the initial programming and healthy running of our immune system. I now know that her fragile and crucially important gut microbiome was just establishing itself when it was obliterated by antibiotics. Add to that the loss of breast milk and the introduction of formula and the result was the allergy. And all because of a small cyst in her armpit!
This sounds like an enormous amount to deal with Rachel. What was the impact on your own physical, mental and emotional health?
As you can imagine, it was not a lot of fun! The stress really got me down and I developed PND again but this time it was a lot worse. I think feeding your baby is just so precious and such a fundamental thing to do but it became the source of an enormous amount of stress for both me and for Rosie. I started anti-depressants again. This time though it took about four years to get better because of all the problems Rosie was having.
You shared your story with me last December, but that was not the end of the matter, was it? Unbeknownst to me, our conversation sparked something in you. Can you tell us what happened next?
It was a strange topic for a Christmas party, I will say that. But I was strangely fascinated. And I began to connect the dots – for Rosie and for me. I also have an appetite for research so microbes and gut health became my next little research project! In our Christmas conversation, you touched on the idea that gut health is being linked to inflammation and also to mental and emotional health so I wondered if improving my gut health might help with my depression and anxiety. These issues have dogged my life for so long and I really wanted to finally come off the anti-depressants.
What changes did you introduce? What did you experiment with first?
At first, I played it safe and just bought some probiotic capsules and took those. Then, as I started to learn more, I realised that I needed a wide variety of probiotics so I bought some “better” ones. Then, I started reading about fermenting foods and this really appealed to me. I started off by making milk kefir. Here is the link to the Wondergut Fermenting Forays page about milk kefir
How much trial and error has been involved in your microbial journey to date?
My first batches of kefir were made using the freeze-dried cultures. That was ok but I knew that using grains was preferable so I bought those and started making it that way. Some batches were better than others – if I leave it too long, it’s too acidic for me. I have had to be dedicated to the cause but what better cause than my own health and the health of my family?
Now, I make milk kefir every day and drink it twice a day. I have also tried my hand at fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi (which also contain probiotic bacteria) – they both turned out well and were very tasty. I’ve also had a go at kombucha – the fermented tea. Again, results have been variable! The kids are totally freaked out at the scoby (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) used to make kombucha as it looks pretty disgusting. I found some great websites – the Cultured Food Life one was particularly helpful. Here is the link to the Wondergut Resources Page
What difference do you think these changes have made to your gut health and your health in general?
Initially, for the first couple of weeks, I actually felt a lot worse. I remember I had an awful headache and my body ached all over. I felt as though I was coming down with flu! I did actually google “Can you take too many probiotics?” as I wondered if I could be doing myself harm! But I ploughed on and then, all of a sudden, I turned a corner and started to feel so much better. Looking back, I now wonder if I felt terrible those first weeks due to a “die-off” reaction. (Colonic: there is a theory that when pathogenic bacteria and yeasts (such as candida) die off, they release toxins that initially make us feel a great deal worse before we feel better.)
I do feel that my gut health is a lot better. I don’t suffer with cramps and indigestion particularly any more.
Is there anything specific that has shifted?
Yes, the biggest change was that my mood started to lift and I felt my anxiety disappearing. I decided to come off the antidepressants – I was only on a low dose – I’d never quite managed to come off them completely. I did it very gradually and, at the same time, I dosed myself up with a lot of probiotics – the capsules, the kefir and the fermented vegetables.
I now know that probiotics can have a positive effect on mood and anxiety – I think some scientists are calling them ‘psychobiotics’. I understand why the gut is being referred to as the “second brain” as there is a direct link between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve.
In addition, I have had issues with candida in my body for a long time and those issues have completely disappeared.
What one change do you feel has been the most influential for your health?
The lifting of my depression and anxiety and being able to finally come off the anti-depressants after all these years. I’m not at all opposed to anti-depressants – they are life-saving sometimes and they helped me in the past. But they do have side effects. I used to have a particular problem with dry eyes. My eyes are much better now that I have stopped the anti-depressants.
Has the rest of your family embraced any of your new pro-microbe habits?
They all now take probiotics in capsule form. I give them a broad spectrum one so that they get a good range of bacterial species. My husband has tried some of the fermented vegetables and he quite liked it. As for the kefir – I think that’s just for me, but that’s ok! When my elder daughter, Hannah, recently had a lot of antibiotics following surgery, I knew that her gut microbes would be damaged, so I dosed her up on probiotic capsules.
We’re also trying to increase the amount of vegetables that we all eat. Luckily, we all love vegetables so it’s not too much of a hardship, but we’re making a conscious effort to eat more of them.
For other reasons, you have had a pretty testing time over the last few months, can you share some of that with us?
Hannah was extremely ill in January and had to have major abdominal surgery – twice! She has made a good recovery but it was a horrible and extremely stressful time.
Both operations were on her gut, so I am more aware now than ever about the importance of gut health. We know that a healthy, diverse diet is key to a healthy gut microbiome. We were really shocked and concerned after Hannah’s surgery that the first hospital food Hannah was offered after 10 days of nil by mouth and major gastrointestinal surgery was chips and pasta bolognaise! Not exactly great for gut health or any kind of health at the best of times, let alone in Hannah’s particular circumstances. We found her some nourishing and simple soups for her to eat instead.
How do you feel your new-found knowledge about the gut microbiome has helped you through this stressful time?
As much as I could in between hospital stays with Hannah, I kept going with my kefir and probiotics and although it was a very stressful time for us all, I have coped and the depression and anxiety have not taken hold again, which is pretty amazing!
From what you have learnt over the last 4 or 5 months, what advice would you give others?
If you have any issues with depression or anxiety or, thinking about it, any immune issues such as allergies, eczema or any of the issues Rosie suffered from when she was little, think about improving your gut health. It influences more areas of our health than we realise and our diet is something we can do something about! Give probiotics a go. And try fermented vegetables and milk kefir too – they are inexpensive and yummy foods in their own right as well as being good for you!
© Joanna Webster June 2017